At the beginnings of theatre there lies a crucial lesson all actors should be taught, the Pantomime. Pantomime in a modern context is the process of conveying a story, usually accompanied by music and sounds, without the use of speech or dialogue. Actors make careers of telling stories with their bodies and voices, and the pantomime forces an actor to learn the necessity of using the body to tell a story.
Pantomime has a long history spanning back to it’ origins in ancient roman theatre. The roman pantomime was a production based around a male dancer. This dancer would be dressed in a short silk tunic and a short mantle. A solo singer or chorus would preform a sung libretto along with the dancers performance in the telling of myths and legends. These performances could be held in a number of different places ranging from private estates to lavish theatrical productions.
The roman pantomimists in larger productions would rely heavily on masks and gestures in order to tell these tales. The hand movements were described as being so complex and expressive that they were compared to an eloquent mouth. The art form took a hold in Roman and was incredibly influential in the Roman culture and helped spread Roman mythology among it’s people.
Even though Roman pantomime was influential in the roman society modern scholars did not give it much attention until the late 20th century. The Roman pantomime was a major step in the precursor of modern dance and more specifically ballet. Helping to influence the story telling techniques and was used to help writer turn Ballet into a powerful story-telling medium. One that was more than capable of conveying complex story lines and emotion through movement and music.
The more modern version of pantomime takes much of it’s influence from the evolution of the British pantomime. A large origin of this pantomime arose from the form of theatre known as commedia dell’arte. A popular form of theatre originally from Italy that was composed a group of professional artist who traveled through Italy and France. They would preform improvs with changing leading roles to adapt to the current location of these performances. However all the stories held a similar cast of supporting character types. These performances were adapted by the British in the early 17th century. This lead to the creation of the English standard, Harlequinade.
Tavern Bilkers, by John Weaver, the dancing master at Drury Lane, is cited as the first pantomime produced on the English stage. Early English pantomime was largely dance and gestures without any words spoken. These pantomimes were largely based around the Greek and Roman mythology and would consist of two acts. In between acts the harlequin would perform their zany comedy routines. These were popular among the public until the mid 1800’s, and eventually fell behind to theaters that provided spoken word productions.
The British pantomime still prevails to this day around Christmas time though. Many focus on stories of the classical fairy tale repertoire, but some are more specific to the holiday itself.
These are the bare bones basics on the history of pantomimes and their origins. An in depth article will be posted at a later date on their full history. We are going to speak now of the use a pantomime provides to actors.
An actor is responsible for telling a story the best way possible. This means with every tool and the body is the actors best tool only second to the mind. When performing a scene or singing a song or even reciting a sonnet we speak in two ways. The first is the obvious, language, we communicate by talking and saying the words from the page. The second however, body language, can convey a multitude of feelings and can possibly contradict the words we say.
Body language is your only tool in pantomime when the use of words is withheld from you. The music and movement in a pantomime are the main vehicles for telling the audience a cohesive story. Doing pantomimes even as a practice in acting classes or for warm ups can help an actor or multiple actors prepare their bodies for a scene. It forces you to get into touch with your body and shows an actor the ways in which the body conveys emotions such as anger or happiness.
A beginner to acting will benefit from doing a pantomime exercise in the early stages of their learning. It will show them how the body can be used as a proper tool in the hands of an actor and why they should never lose the connection to their bodies in a scene. A more experienced actor can use it to hone an emotion and find the way a character may move or live in a situation. We show our emotions in many ways through expressions in the body, and a simple gesture such as folding your arms conveys more than you realize. This can be utilized by an actor and taken to great lengths when used within a scene.
Pantomime should be on the lesson plans for any acting teacher who is working with first time students. The art form may not be popular in modern theatre for money making ventures, but it is a powerful tool an actor should add to their bag.